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Repentance and fasting in the Muslim and Jewish traditions

Friday 29 September 2006, by Joanna Steinhardt

Welcoming the Sabbath Bride with an Iftar meal and prayers

This year, the residents of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam enjoyed a rare opportunity. During the Jewish year 5766 and the Muslim year 1427, the month of Ramadan coincided with the festivals of Tishrei (the Days of Awe, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah). This gave residents and friends the chance to celebrate these holidays together. It was an ideal time for Doumia Sakinah to explore the commonalities between the two traditions, Muslim and Jewish, in relation to ideas of repentance and fasting, returns and beginnings, community and spirituality.

Ramadan and the festivals of Tishrei share many qualities. Both mark the passage of another year, both are considered the holiest time of the year in the religious calendar, both involve collective and individual introspection, and both are times to reconnect with ones community.

Doumia Sakinah was pleased to bring together the Sufi poet and writer Ghassan Manasra and the Rabbi Roberto Arbiv to talk with residents and guests of NSWAS – including families and children, Muslim, Jews, and Christians – about repentance and fasting in the Muslim and Jewish traditions. Both Manasra and Arbiv are members of Tarikat Ibrahimi / Derech Avraham (The Way of Abraham), a joint Muslim-Jewish group that has met regularly for the past four years to study and practice together.

The weekend activities took place the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, eight days into the Ramadan fast. In the Jewish tradition, this Shabbat is called Shabbat Teshuvah, or the Shabbat of Repentance, because it takes place during the Aseret Y’mai Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentence between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. It is an auspicious time to prepare for the day of Yom Kippur. Among the forty-plus participants in the weekend activities, the feeling was one of symbiosis and harmony between the two traditions.

The weekend began Friday night with Jewish lighting of the Shabbat candles and Kabbalat Shabbat services. This was followed by the Iftar meal breaking the day’s Ramadan fast and the Muslim prayer services after the meal.

What is repentance?: Teshuvah and Thauba

After the meal and prayer service, the families, friends, and residents of NSWAS sat in the new Doumia Sakinah building and discussed the many parallels, and also the differences, between the Yamim HaNora’im – the Jewish Days of Awe – and the fasting month of Ramadan. Guest speakers Ghassan and Roberto led the discussion.

The overarching question was about the meaning of repentance. What does it mean to repent? How is the meaning different in Judaism and Islam?

Repentance – thauba in Arabic and teshuvah in Hebrew – is the essential principle in both the Days of Awe and Ramadan. Through the discussion between Ghassan, Roberto, and the participants, we found that the concept is very similar in both traditions. Even the words, thauba and tehsuva, share the same linguistic roots. They derive from the verb “the return” or “to answer.” This is what provides the terms with their deeper meaning of returning to the source or answering the call of a higher power.

Roberto began with a description of the significance of Yom Kippur and the meaning of teshuvah. Yom Kippur falls at the beginning of the Jewish year, ten days after Rosh Hashanna. It is a chance for the individual and the community to start over. It is said that the holiday is like a spiritual miqva, or cleansing bath, for the soul. The days before Yom Kippur are a time to prepare for this event. During those days, one should deal with unfinished business between oneself and others and between oneself and God in order to enter the day free of extra baggage.

Roberto described Yom Kippur as a day that is disconnected completely from the material world. It is a day of pure spirit; by preparing one can begin Yom Kippur with a clear mind and dedicate the whole day to God.

Unlike Yom Kippur, Ramadan is not at the beginning of the year but towards the end. Besides this, one of the essential differences between Judaism and Islam is that the Islamic holidays are always moving in relation to the seasons (and in relation to the Gregorian/ western calendar). In the two month before Ramadan, one prepares by paying attention to everyday actions and becoming more aware and awake of his thoughts and behavior. Ghassan explained that the goal of Ramadan is to set aside a month each year for thauba. It is a time to look inwards and to undertake self-criticism. As in Judaism, thauba implies going back to the source. According to the Sufi way, thauba is a process of purification that rids oneself of egoistic hindrances that block one’s conscious unity with God (Allah).

The discussion was rich and engaging, not only due to the speakers but also to the insights and stories brought by the participants. Everyone contributed in their own way to the conversation. One participant said the feel of the discussion was like a journey through different people’s experiences with the two traditions.

Morning stories of fasting and return: Rav Zusha and Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya

The next morning, the program continued with a guided meditation with Roberto based on the sefirot (the ten aspects of God that are manifested in the human body, according to Kabbalah). Afterward, with ten participants, we held a Shabbat morning service in which we read the Torah portion for the Shabbat Teshuvah, Parshat Ha’azinu.

The discussion continued at 10 AM as the Muslims began their eighth day of the Ramadan fast. This time, the group delved deeper into this issue of teshuvah/thauba and fasting.

Roberto began with a Hasidic tale about Rav Zusha. In Zusha’s town was a hotel owner who had been cheating his patrons. He had been charging them extra, stealing their possessions, and lying to them about the theft by blaming it on the housekeeper. Even as Yom Kippur approached, the man denied any wrong doing and refused to recompense the people who had lost their money and belongings at his hotel. It was a shame for the town and a hardship for Zusha who worried over this Jew that refused to do teshuvah for his sins. Then one day, Zusha went down to the hotel, sat in the lobby, and waited for the owner to come in. When he did, Zusha began to sob and weep and cry out, “Oh Lord, forgive me! Forgive me for my sins! How Lord can you ever forgive me for all the horrible, sinful, awful things I have done!” He pulled his beard and his pe’ot and tears ran down his cheeks. “Dear God, I’ve stolen! I’ve lied! I’ve cheated! I’ve denied wrong-doing! From the innocent, from poor women and children, from righteous men with not enough bread to eat! I’ve taken money, I’ve taken objects that are not mine! And worse, I blamed it on the innocent, the simple and hardworking!” Zusha cried and cried with tears of sadness and repentance for all the sins of the Jews and the world. All the while, the owner stood, jaw dropped, watching the scene of Rav Zusha wailing in his hotel lobby. And soon, tears came to his eyes and his hands shook and he covered his face with shame and called out, “No it was me! Dear God please forgive me!”

Ghassan told a story about Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya (Rabia Basri), an eighth century Sufi saint from the town of Basra. Rabi’a is considered the first female saint in Islam; she is buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. Rabi’a lived an ascetic life. She taught and lived the Sufi way of Islam that teaches that Love is the highest path towards knowing God. One day, someone asked Rabi’a if she hated Satan. She replied: "My love to God has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating." Rabi’a taught that thauba was a gift from God because it required His mercy and involvement; man cannot do it alone. At the same time, she taught that one shouldn’t worship God out of self-interest. Neither that fear of hell nor the hope of paradise should motivate ones prayers. Rabi’a explained that fear and hope are only veils, illusions blocking the way to God. The quintessential story of Rabi’a tells that she was walking through the streets of Basra with a torch in one hand and the bucket of water in the other, saying, “I am going to light a fire in Paradise and to pour water on to Hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether from before the pilgrims and their purpose may be sure.” Rabi’a worshipped God for the sake of God alone, out of love and devotion. Thauba is the removal of veils that block the way to God so that one may return out of love, rather than fear or expectation.

Finding a new way home

Ghassan explained that we learn from this story that we don’t seek God outside of us, in Heaven, but within. Sufism teaches that God is within every human being. That is why reconciliation between people is as important as reconciliation between a person and God. By reconciling ourselves with others, we are able to connect to God with a pure mind.

Fasting helps the mind and heart in the process of repentance. It is not simply a technical or physical process; it is a total activity that involves all aspects of one’s self. During Ramadan, practices such as silence, controlling one’s anger, meditation, and night prayers contribute to helping focus ones mind. The overall goal is to deepen contemplation and heighten mindfulness. Already, two months before the month of Ramadan, the Muslim prepares by paying more attention to his actions. This preparation bears fruit during the fast when one is no longer preoccupied with food and therefore one’s mind is free to be given over to contemplation.

Similarly, in Judaism, the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar, is a time to meditate and work on oneself. It is a time of preparation to start over for the New Year.

Unlike Yom Kippur, though, Ramadan is in a new season every year because of the particular cycle of the Muslim calendar. This means that the setting for thauba is never the same and the action itself is new each time. It is a new chance to return in a new way.

Ghassan’s description of Ramadan prompted Roberto to tell another story. Rebbe Nachman used to say, if you go the same way every day, the robbers know where to catch you and they’ll wait along the road. But if you change your path, then they won’t know which way you’re going and they won’t be able to surprise you. Rebbe Nachman teaches that this is like teshuvah: for each individual, the same stumbling blocks and bad habits wait for him along the way. He can’t use the same tactic each time but must come up wit new tactics all the time. Teshuvah is a continuous process of learning and growing. One finds must find new ways to get past the old and new obstacles in order to return to God in his own way.

The idea of teshuvah as a continual process is reflected in thauba as well.

Ghassan explained that it’s important to remember that thauba is not a one-time event but happens in stages. First, one is aware of the action (or inaction) that was not right; second, one regrets the action; and third, one commits oneself not to do it again – in other words, to change. This same process is outlined by the Rambam, (Maimonides). He wrote that true teshuvah is forsaking the sin, removing ones desire to sin again, resolving never to do the sin again, and then feeling regret and remorse over what was done. For the Rambam, it is the resolution not to sin again that makes the teshuvah complete; without it, it is as if the whole process as been in vain.

Rambam writes that the penitent is the one who faces the same situation but acts differently, not because he scared or weak but because he wants to repent. Like Rab’ia, his way forward is based on love, not on fear.

Both of our speakers agreed that the process of teshuvah and thauba should happen everyday.

It is written that Moses knew the time of his death. This is because, explained Roberto, Moses expected death everyday. In the Gemara, Rabbi Eliezer says to repent one day before one’s death. His disciples asked him,

“Does then one know on what day he will die?”

“All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow.” (Shabbat 153a).

Being aware of ones own mortality and the preciousness of life will move one to correct ones way and go in the correct path.

Coming closer

Besides the obvious and numerous parallels that were uncovered during our discussions, it became clear that both traditions hold similar ideas of reconciliation and peace. In both Islam and Judaism, true change comes through seeing the reflection of God in oneself and other human beings, as well as finding ones way towards God on ones one. As Ghassan explained, approaching God with a pure mind can only happen when the understanding of God’s presence within every human being purifies one’s actions. Reconciliation between people, then, is another form of thauba / teshuvah, a way of coming closer to God.


The iftar meal Rabbi Roberto Aviv, Ghassan Manasra The discussion Marina and Roberto Aviv, Ghassan and Laila Manasra

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